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Time for a city ‘code of conduct’

By Staff | Jul 24, 2020

Cape Coral City Council announced Monday that it will explore bringing forward a code of conduct for its members.

It’s a good concept — and long overdue.

Four years ago, with the city touting its efforts for the development of the Bimini Basin area and the city-owned Seven Islands as well as its progress toward a citywide revamp of its land development regs and comprehensive plan, we urged just that.

But in the context of how officials throughout city government conduct business.

Our strong call to action was not proposed in the wake of such “serious” transgressions as inappropriately worn PPEs, perceived occurrences of hooky by the technologically challenged in the midst of a pandemic, or even in response to an inappropriate email by the social media sickened, as serious as we agree — all sarcasm aside — that latter transgression might be.

Nor even — as cold-hearted as we sometimes can be on these pages when it comes to public money ill-spent — was it intended as an icepick prod to council members or staffers to “step up or step down” in the wake of a documented serious illness of self, a family member, or both. (We believe the Family Leave Medical Act addresses such situations appropriately, even though, yes, there is both a cost and the inconvenience of being, well, understanding.)

We urged the then-Council to “grab Lee County’s playbook to foster transparency throughout the ‘concept-to-construction process'” by adopting some form of “lobbying ordinance” to assure a level playing field for projects coming before the city as the Lee County Board of County Commissioners did years before, in the late ’90s, in fact with its current ordinance adopted in 2003.

The Lee County code of conduct, if you will, is applicable to any effort “To influence (encourage the passage, defeat, or modification of) any item which may be presented for a vote before:

1. Board of County Commissioners; or

2. Decision-making body; or

3. Consideration by a county employee as a recommendation to the Board or decision-making body.”

The ordinance applies to the board and select top-tier staff from the county manager to the various department heads.

Former Cape Councilmember Richard Leon brought the idea forward, ran into opposition from city staff, which wanted to opt out, and ultimately, the idea of an implementation of what the county has long done went nowhere.

That’s unfortunate because it could have helped address what really ails us at the city level — the sometimes real, sometimes perceived, lack of transparency by members of the administration, staff and yes, council.

Case in point.

The most recent ruckus, now roiling for months, stems from behind-the-scenes, excuse us, staff-level revisions, to not one, but two public park designs for facilities to be paid for though the voter-approved $60 million General Obligation Bond. Simply put, the design modifications ultimately brought forward by staff — which was working with outside parties even as the designs portrayed on large signage at the parks were being publically “finalized” through a much more public process — caused the current contretemps.

And a city “code of conduct” that is not a code of ethics that requires council members and city staff — staff being a key component here to disclose such meetings as “lobbying” efforts — is a toothless tiger, giving residents something kind of fierce to look at until you realize it’s all growl and no bite.

So let us again urge Cape Coral City Council to adopt a code of conduct — a code of ethical conduct — by adopting the code similar to what the county has in place.

The long-used county ordinance requires a number of things:

Lobbyists, in general, are defined as “any person, firm, entity ‘paid or unpaid'” who seeks to “encourage the passage, defeat or modification” of any item to be presented to a vote before the commission, a county decision-making body or a county employee who can make a recommendation. Paid lobbyists must register and file quarterly disclosure forms.

The ordinance applies to all communications, written or oral, to a commission member, board member or county employee including those in the county manager’s office, the county attorney’s office, all department directors and all employees within the purchasing division and contracts office.

The ordinance requires uniform logs detailing the date; whether the contact was by phone or visit; the name of the person making the contact and whether he or she was representing another person or entity and the topic discussed. There also is room for comments. The logs are filed quarterly to the Clerk of Courts with an office copy retained.

The ordinance provides enough exceptions to allow the county to conduct its day-to-day operations but not for a whole lot else.

The ordinance has some teeth: The penalty, for a willful violation, is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.

Whether anyone has been “bitten” is a different story but enforcement could be addressed by City Council through consideration of a provision that treats “repeats” differently from any “non-willful” first offense.

We like the county ordinance: it’s simple and straightforward. Still, as we outlined previously, there are some minor modifications and areas of special emphasis we recommend for inclusion in a city disclosure ordinance:

– There should be an explicit no-exception for union representatives speaking in that capacity to individual council members or others who are required to log.

– Each quarter, certain public officials, including members of city council, must report any gifts valued at $100 or more with the state. (Gifts of any value by lobbyists or vendors are wholly prohibited.) For ease of access to residents, council policy should require that these Commission on Ethics gift forms be posted on the city website. The city already posts required annual financial disclosure forms so the procedure is already in place.

– A pre-vote disclosure process, via a written form or by on-the-record verbal notice, should be included. If a member of council or staff has been “lobbied” as per the definition in the ordinance, that should be disclosed from the dais.

– Income/business disclosure. In theory, city officials already disclose sources of income and business partnerships on their state financial disclosure forms. If a proposal that benefits a business or individual comes before council for a vote, council members should be required to disclose any business, financial or personal relationship. This does not preclude a vote unless it meets the state recusal standard of direct benefit.

– The use of any city computer, cell phone or device for personal communications should be expressly prohibited. The use of a personal device to discuss city matters should be prohibited. Current policies have created a public records nightmare for city staff – and the public – as “personal” communications apparently take hours to cull from city devices.

Too tough? Too much?

Some on the Lee County Commission, who have found themselves outside the parameters might agree.

But if City Council is serious about making sure Council is accountable to those who elected them and those who pay their salary, then any such “code” needs to be more — much more — than a Miss Manners playbook and related knuckle-wrap penalty for “conduct unbecoming.”

With a new council, and a new city manager, coming in what better time than now to commit to transparency at all levels of Cape Coral City Government?

— Breeze editorial